A few years back the Green Bay Packers had gutted their depth for immediate success, experienced a series of injuries, and plummeted to the bottom of the standings and far out of the playoff picture. Their travails led to the firing of their head coach and to the hiring of Mike McCarthy.
If my memory is working correctly, during coach McCarthy’s first season the Packers play
ed gamely, but lost most of their games. With a record of four wins and eight losses the new coach was being attacked by some fans, though the team itself was entirely supportive.
What I’ll never forget, however, was something that happened even before they won their last four games to complete the season eight and eight.
I wish I could remember the exact moment when I first heard it, but coach McCarthy said something that must have seemed laughable at the time. He said the biggest challenge in professional sports is “stacking successes.”
Incredible. Here was the coach of a team that had apparently imploded and rather than focus on their losses, he chose to concentrate on taking the successes that he could find and “stacking” them.
He still thinks that way. After winning yesterday’s Super Bowl, he discussed how one of the hardest things for a professional athlete is handling success.
What does this have to do with classical education? Let me draw back even farther in time for context so I can explain something that I think affects our schools.
I was born in November of 1963, which, as anybody who knows football history knows, was the year after Vince Lombardi’s Packers had won their second championship, and two years before they won three more, including the first two Super Bowls. It was a different era, but nobody denies that the Packers five championships in seven years and their 9-1 record in post-season games ranks them as the most dominant seven year team in football history.
But by the time I was conscious of professional football, the glory days of were long gone. I think I remember Bart Starr’s last game as a quarterback in, I think, 1971. By then he was too old and beat up to lead them to victory and most of the players and coaches, including the immortal Lombardi, were long gone.
In 1972, when I reached my ninth year, they actually had a winning season and went to the playoffs, but in their anxiety to win now at any cost their leadership team made decisions that set them back by a decade. All of my formative years in sports fandom, the Packers were a joke – the most loyal fans on earth, but also the most unrewarded.
My father, however, and everybody else in Green Bay, never forgot the way things had been. The Green Bay Packers had won 11 championships, and the next best team, the Chicago Bears had won only 8. Running back Jim Taylor was once robbed at knife point, we were told, and the knife bent when it contacted his stomach muscles. Don Hutson had invented the wide receiver position and set records in eight game seasons that stood until Jerry Rice broke them in the modern 16 game season.
We would visit the Hall of Fame sometimes and hear recordings of Vince Lombardi motivating his team or speaking at luncheons. “Winning isn’t everything,” I heard a thousand times, “It’s the only thing.” One of my favorites was repeated a few times this week:
I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.
That didn’t happen much for my Packers during my early life. Between 1968 and 1993 I think the Packers made the playoffs two or three times. They were never great. They were never considered contenders for the Super Bowl.
The Bob Harlan took over the leadership of the team and decided it was a disgrace that such a proud franchise should have been so bad for so long. I had grown from five to 30 years old and had remained loyal all those years – if only because we Packers fans knew the stories of Johnny Blood, Don Hutson, and Cal Hubbard and we remembered that the Packers went undefeated in 1929 to win the NFL Championship. And we remembered those 60’s Packers that owned the NFL.
Here’s how the man who restored the Packers to glory described us Packer fans:
They tell me how their children and wives and husbands and friends schedule their lives around Packer games. They tell me how they collect Packer souvenirs and memorabilia until entire closets are full. They talk as if this love affair with the franchise has always existed. They act as if the years between 1968 and 1991, when it wasn’t very much fun being a Packer fan, never took place.
The Packer Way
Yeah, we got by on memories. For me, it was all I had – apart from the occasional star (Lynn Dickey, James Lofton, Sterling Sharpe…) But the Packers had forgotten who they were and where they were from, and they had let their legacy become a thing of the increasingly distant past.
Till Bob Harlan took charge. He hired Ron Wolf almost immediately and everything changed. Wolf knew what he was joining and he knew the history. He loved the challenge and he insisted on winning.
Just before he retired, he wrote a book called The Packer Way (quoted above) in which he outlined the “stepping stones” that he followed to build one of the most successful and highly respected organizations of the last 20 years.
There are nine of them, and they all merit attention, but I want to highlight two things here: one, the fact that he could identify them, and two, the fact that he cared about them in the first place.
In the Introduction he says, “I like to win. No, I have to win.” Some people think he’s got a disordered soul if he feels that way, but he goes on to explain that in his personal life it is no big deal, but in his professional life, “there’s nothing that drives me more than the thirst I have for reaching no. 1.”
Education is very different in that we are not competing with each other to be the no. 1 school in the world. In fact, education is more collegial, at least in theory, and we are all supposed to be cooperatively working toward common ends.
But I’m not sure that’s the real world. I know I want CiRCE to be the best consulting service it can be. I’m driven by the insatiable appetite to understand Christian classical education and to make it understandable and practicable to the growing thousands of people who dream a common dream. I don’t compete with other organizations, and I try to help them any way I can, because we are all working toward something crucial. We are all one team.
But if you think of it that way, there is a foe – another team we need to compete with. And we have to be better than them. That foe is any educator who wants to build education on the Deweyite premisses of progressivism and the skeptical premisses of naturalism.
We cannot afford to lose to them. Our children and grandchildren cannot afford for us to lose to them. But for one hundred years or more we have forgotten who we are and where we are from and we have been losing to them. So much so that not many people have the stomach for the fight.
Ron Wolf identified this as the third stepping stone to building a winning organization. “Develop an obsession with winning today,” he said. Is your school committed to winning? Or are you content to do things the way everybody else does?
But notice, this is the third stepping stone. There are two things you need to put in place even before you can devote your attention to winning (although winning is always the reason for what we do, as Paul makes clear in his athletic analogies).
First, he says, we must identify what needs to be fixed. I think of this at two levels. First, we must, as a renewal movement, never stop figuring this out on a theological/philosophical/cultural level. Our country and our schools are deeply sick. Do we know what needs to be fixed? Have we looked carefully?
But there is another, more immediate way to think about this, and it applies to boards and heads. Is your school a winning school? Is it reaching the goals you have set for it? Is it fulfilling your dreams? If not, do you know why it isn’t? Can you get into the nitty gritty of the daily life of the school and understand what roles are undefined, what relationships are strained and why, whether the curriculum and teaching are consistent with your school’s goals?
If you are a headmaster, you have to be able to answer those questions. The only way you can find the answers is by interacting personally with the heart and arteries of your school. The board should not get closely involved in this question unless the school is in crisis.
In any case, every school needs to know what needs to be fixed, because there is always something. And the job of the head is to have his finger on the pulse of the team and to know when the heart beat isn’t right before anybody else does.
Once you have identified what needs to be fixed, then you can go on to the second stepping stone: Hire the best. Anything I have ever read or heard about leadership that I have valued has emphasized the obvious importance of this point. But as obvious as it is, we constantly forget it in the dailyness of our work.
If you hire the wrong people in key leadership positions, it is almost impossible succeed. My view is that if you can hire a superstar, do it and find out what you want him to do after you hire him.
For twenty years, I have watched a once forlorn franchise consistently perform well and often excellently. After Ron Wolf retired, there was a lull. Problems went unaddressed and then blew up in the face of management. The best were allowed to slip away or to stay too long. The obsession with winning seemed a little more tenuous.
Then Ted Thompson was hired to serve as general manager. He immediately hired the best coach (headmaster) he could find and drafted a quarterback he believed could lead them to victory. He took intense heat for letting a fan favorite go. But his focus, his willingness to fix what needed to be fixed, and his commitment to hiring and developing the best talent were all vindicated last night in the most watched television show in the history of American television.
Not bad. If you’re after worldly glory, they’ve got it. We’re called to something higher, but the principles of success are God-given and they are the same: single minded focus on winning the ultimate prize, humbling ourselves before the reality of what needs to be fixed, and calling on those with the gifts who can help us reach our goals.
Let’s stack those successes – forgetting what’s behind, laboring for the prize of the high-calling of God in Christ Jesus!
Bonus: Here’s Mike McCarthy’s Mission Statement. The school that applied its principles would be effective.
- Packers eye repeat (theglobeandmail.com)